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Skylight succeeds with a personalized ‘Les Miz’

Les Misérables isn’t exactly traditional holiday fare. But Skylight Music Theatre’s production, which opened Nov. 22, is a true holiday gift — a thrilling night of musical theater.

Few musicals equal Les Miz in blending a strong storyline, a soaring musical score and a compelling cast of characters. No wonder the musical’s return to Broadway in March is being so eagerly anticipated by fans. An astonishing 65 million people worldwide have already seen a stage production of Les Miz, and millions more have seen the film version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.

Set in 19th-century France during a time of revolution, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. It follows the journey of Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, Valjean is rejected by all except a kind clergyman. The clergyman’s singular kindness makes such a strong impression on Valjean that he is transformed. He vows to spend his life correcting injustice. 

He has his work cut out for him, as there is injustice aplenty in Les Miserables. The young mother Fantine has been abandoned by her lover and must work to pay another family to care for her daughter. Then she’s fired by a factory manager after spurning his sexual advances. On her deathbed, Fantine pours out her heart to Valjean, who has by now become the successful owner of the factory in which she toiled. She fears for her daughter’s future, and Valjean vows to find and raise the girl.

But hot on Valjean’s heels is the police officer Javert, who will spend the rest of his life attempting to put Valjean back behind bars. 

Also part of the plot is a group of young men who vow to liberate Paris from what they see as a corrupt government. Their stirring commitment to freedom is brilliantly realized under director Marie Rhode’s direction. The young fighters literally create a barricade before the audience’s eyes as they deliver a rousing rendition of the anthemic “The People’s Song.” 

Rhode deserves credit for taking Les Miserables to a personal level. Her production depends more on character development than on splashy scenery. She dresses her cast in bland, sand-colored outfits. As the cast sings its way through the opening number “At the End of the Day,” some actors don military uniforms while others put on prison outfits. This makes for a seamless transition to the scene in which Javert first confronts Valjean in the prison yard. 

The cast is uniformly superb, led by Luke Grooms as the escaped convict Jean Valjean, and Andrew Varela as his pursuer Javert. A polished, operatic tenor, Grooms easily masters the challenging score. He is a big man whose physical presence matches his importance to the story. He can lead the production numbers with his booming voice, but he can also sing sweetly and tenderly when offering a prayer.

Equally impressive is Varela. His strong baritone lends Javert his authority. Varela’s every movement is spot-on as well, probably due to his prior engagement as Valjean in Broadway’s Les Miz. He’s also played Javert before — in the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Miz.

Despite her hideous, Goldilocks-style blond wig, Susan Spencer as Fantine does a fine job of delivering the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Melissa Fife shows off a spectacular voice as Eponine. Her unrequited love for the dashing Marius (played by a very good-looking Kevin Massey) is given more prominence than usual in this production. This makes her plight, as well as her death scene in Marius’ arms, even more compelling.

Eponine’s parents, the Thenardiers, do their part to lighten the proceedings. These bawdy, crude and money-grubbing innkeepers are played to the hilt by Eric Mahlum and Rhonda Rae Busch. They give “Master of the House” all the gusto it requires.

Cabot Theatre’s intimacy is its most charming feature, but its small stage is not equipped to handle the set demands for Les Miz. Rhode was able to dodge this problem when directing her former Skylight blockbuster Sound of Music. She never attempted to duplicate the Alps, for instance.

But in Les Miz, once the massive barricade appears, it never really goes away. Even the clever lighting can’t compensate during scenes that contain only one or a few characters.

This is a slight drawback to an otherwise exceptional show that will create memories that linger throughout the holiday season.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Les Miserables continues in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, through Dec. 29. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or go to www.skylightmusictheatre.org.

Hooper’s ‘Les Miserables’ is relentless

Tom Hooper’s extravaganza – big-screen telling of the beloved musical “Les Miserables” – is as relentlessly driven as the ruthless Inspector Javert himself. It simply will not let up until you’ve Felt Something – powerfully and repeatedly – until you’ve touched the grime and smelled the squalor and cried a few tears of your own.

It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle.

At the same time, it’s hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach, as well as Hooper’s efforts to combine a rousing, old-fashioned musical tale with contemporary and immediate aesthetics. There’s a lot of hand-held camerawork here, a lot of rushing and swooping through the crowded, volatile slums of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century France.

Two years after the release of his inspiring, crowd-pleasing “The King’s Speech,” winner of four Academy Awards including best picture, Hooper has vastly expanded his scope but also jettisoned all remnants of restraint.

But he also does something clever in asking his actors to sing live on camera, rather than having them record their vocals in a booth somewhere as is the norm, and for shooting the big numbers in single takes. The intimacy can be uncomfortable at times and that closeness highlights self-indulgent tendencies, but the meaning behind lyrics which have become so well-known shines through anew. You’d probably heard “I Dreamed a Dream,” the plaintive ballad of the doomed prostitute Fantine, sung countless times even before Susan Boyle unfortunately popularized it again in 2009. An emaciated and shorn Anne Hathaway finds fresh pain and regret in those words because her rendition is choked with sobs, because it’s not perfect.

That’s definitely part of the fascination of this version of “Les Miserables”: seeing how these A-list stars handle the demands of near-constant singing. Hugh Jackman, as the hero and former prisoner Jean Valjean, is a musical theatre veteran and seems totally in command (although the higher part of his register gets a bit nasal and strained). Amanda Seyfried, as Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, whom Jean Valjean adopts, had already proven she can sing in “Mamma Mia!” but hits some freakishly high notes here – which isn’t always a good thing. Eddie Redmayne is a lovely surprise as the love-struck revolutionary Marius. And of course, Samantha Barks gives an effortless performance as the lonely and doomed Eponine – everyone here is doomed, it’s “Les Miserables” – a role she’d performed on the London stage.

And then there’s Russell Crowe as the obsessed lawman Javert, who has pursued Jean Valjean for decades for breaking his parole and insists he’s still a dangerous man, despite the pious and prosperous life Valjean has forged. Although Crowe has sung in rock bands for years, he’s vocally overmatched here, which strips the character of the menace that defines him. Seeing him sing opposite Jackman makes you wish you could watch these same actors having these same conversations with, like, actual words. But again, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort, the risk it required to take on the role.

For the uninitiated, Javert hunts for Valjean against the backdrop of the Paris Uprising of 1832. Adorable street urchins, sassy prostitutes and virile subversives band together to build barricades, and to sing on top of them, until they are gunned down by French troops. The adorably smitten Cosette and Marius wonder whether they’ll ever see each other again. Thieving innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, garishly over-the-top even by the characters’ standards) wonder when their next unsuspecting victim will come along. And Jean Valjean wonders whether he’ll ever truly be free.

How you feel walking out of this film two and a half hours later will depend a great deal on what you brought into it going in. Maybe you listened to the soundtrack fanatically in high school and still know all the words to “On My Own.” Perhaps you were thrilled to see the show on stage during a vacation to New York (and there’s a nice little cameo from Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from the London and Broadway productions). You will probably be in far better shape than someone coming into this cold.

You may even cry when key characters die, even though you know full well what fate awaits them. There’s no shame in that – we’re all friends here.

On the Web…

http://www.lesmiserablesfilm.com